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Liberia's Taylor gave aid to Qaeda, UN probe finds

WASHINGTON -- The senior Al Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan last week met with former Liberian president Charles Taylor in the years before and after Sept. 11, 2001, and received refuge from the former US ally while planning further terrorist operations, according to US intelligence officials and United Nations investigators.

The officials and investigators also painted a picture of Liberia under Taylor as a haven for Al Qaeda, and raised new questions about why the United States waited so long to support Taylor's ouster and continues to refrain from using its influence to bring him before a UN war crimes tribunal.

The Defense Department approved a special forces raid to capture Al Qaeda leaders under Taylor's protection in 2001, but called it off and never reactivated the plan, the US officials said in recent interviews, on condition of anonymity. Meanwhile, senior leaders of Al Qaeda continued to receive Taylor's protection.

On July 25, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was arrested in eastern Pakistan along with more than a dozen other Qaeda operatives and is being held in connection with the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. But for at least three years beginning in the late 1990s, he lived in an army camp and hotels run by Taylor's government in Liberia. In addition, Taylor's forces harbored other suspected Al Qaeda leaders, including MIT-educated biologist Aafia Siddiqui, US officials and UN investigators said.

Al Qaeda allegedly paid Taylor for protection and then joined him in the African diamond trade, raising millions of dollars for terrorist activities, according to UN war crimes documents.

Taylor, who was deposed last year, is living in exile in Nigeria under a deal brokered by the United States. The US government has been under increasing pressure to help persuade Nigeria to turn Taylor over to the UN tribunal in Sierra Leone, which has indicted him for atrocities in various West African nations. But the United States, which officials have said used Taylor as a CIA informant and backed his Revolutionary United Front in the mid-1990s, has so far refused.

''It is clear that Al Qaeda had been in West Africa since September 1998 and maintained a continuous presence in the area through 2002," according to a new confidential report by the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone. The report was written by UN investigators preparing the case against Taylor.

State Department officials were not available for comment yesterday about the report or alleged links between Al Qaeda and Taylor, who took power in a 1997 civil war. The Bush administration froze Taylor's assets July 23. President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria has called it a matter of national ''honor" not to go back on its exile agreement with Taylor.

Neither the United States nor Nigeria has commented on Liberia's alleged Al Qaeda links under Taylor. Nevertheless, the UN investigation found that Ghailani, who was sent to Liberia in 1999 to help coordinate Al Qaeda investments in the diamond trade, met with Taylor, along with Al Qaeda leaders Fazhl Abdullah Mohammed, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. All three are wanted in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and remain on the FBI's list of 22 most wanted terrorists.

Mohammed and Swedan, like Ghailani, are of African descent. Pakistani authorities yesterday told the Associated Press that two ''high-level" Al Qaeda operatives were captured in Punjab. The officials did not provide details on their identities, but said the two were of African origin.

Ghailani and Mohammed arrived in Liberia in March 1999 from the Ivory Coast, according to the UN report. They traveled to Monrovia as guests of Taylor and met with him at his Congo Town residence. Both stayed at the Hotel Boulevard in Monrovia.

Both men remained in Liberia for several years, staying at a military camp near the Sierra Leone border and in government-run hotels in Monrovia, according to the US officials and the UN investigation. The same connections are detailed in a Belgian police report on two men who now face trial in Belgium for smuggling diamonds from Sierra Leone. They allegedly had business ties to the Al Qaeda diamond buyers, including Mohammed.

The UN report outlined a series of alleged links between Al Qaeda leaders and Taylor's regime:

Mohammed served as a driver in 2000 and 2001 for General Sam Bockarie, a senior Taylor commander.

Mohammed Atef, then Al Qaeda's military commander, met in early 2000 with General Issa Sesay, another Taylor commander. Atef is believed to have been killed in the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Siddiqui, the MIT-trained microbiologist who is also on the FBI's most-wanted list, arrived in Monrovia in June 2001 as a guest of one of Taylor's top lieutenants. She was there for a week, investigators said, to meet with Al Qaeda operatives -- including Ghailani -- to get a status report for her superiors in Pakistan on the terrorist group's gem trade.

The FBI posted Siddiqui's photo, along with Ghailani's and Mohammed's, in May as part of a list of individuals who may be planning attacks.

According to the UN investigation, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe, ''the corrupt regime of President Charles Taylor of Liberia facilitated access for Al Qaeda operatives into Sierra Leone and Liberia in exchange for diamonds and weapons."

''Charles Taylor was in the back pocket of Al Qaeda," said a US intelligence official who corroborrated the UN's main findings.

The official said the Liberian strongman was personally paid at least $1 million by Al Qaeda for his assistance: ''He was helping them launder money through the diamond mines."

Current and former US officials believe there were missed opportunities in the late 1990s and in the months after the 2001 attacks to unravel what was a key Al Qaeda hub. Mohammed, for example, is believed to have later masterminded an attack on a seaside hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, in December 2002 that killed three Israelis and 10 Kenyans and a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli jetliner taking off from Mombasa the same day.

''For some reason our intelligence people have been very anxious to disprove this as happening, something that can't be disproven," said Joseph Melrose, who was US ambassador to Sierra Leone until September 2001.

As recently as June 2003, the FBI reported to the US General Accounting Office that there was no Al Qaeda presence in West Africa, despite what intelligence and military officials say was a plan to capture Ghailani and Mohammed in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks using a US special forces team stationed in nearby Guinea. That mission was called off, although it is unclear why.

After meeting with war crimes investigators in February of this year, the FBI concluded that Al Qaeda did have extensive ties with Taylor and his armed forces, the UN investigators said.

Some specialists suggest the United States did not take seriously the reports of Al Qaeda's links to Taylor -- and has not pressed for his trial in Sierra Leone because of his longstanding ties with the intelligence community.

''I've heard that he was on the US payroll," Melrose said. ''It's very possible some of these other characters [in the Taylor regime] have been, too."

According to Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the National Strategy Information Center in Washington and author of ''Blood from Stones," an account of the terrorist trade in precious stones in West Africa, Taylor bragged that ''he worked for the CIA for years."

''Why hasn't the United States pressed for his handover to Sierra Leone?" he asked. ''The United States is funding most of it and the high-powered prosecutors are led by people" from the Defense Department. ''To get [Nigeria] to get Taylor turned over we're not going to do anything."

Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. 

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